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Violence Will Not Cease Without Facing Our Fears of Death

Every time some American man shoots up a building full of people, I feel a deep sense of grief. No matter how many arguments I have heard from gun rights advocates, I’ve never been able to swallow the obsession with guns many men in the U.S. have. I’m aware that this is a major issue in many other nations as well. Especially in war torn and militarily dominated countries, armed groups of men terrorize people on a regular basis. But the Wild West, rugged American individualism creates the perfect storm of actual gun violence, as well as widespread fears of possible gun violence.

Over the past 30 years, the rise of the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups, coupled with a pervasive increase in conceal carry laws and doubling of gun ownership, has elevated the general public’s “perceived threat level.” Robert Hartman, author of the blog “Ending Patriarchy,” offers the following:

Globally, we are saturated with guns, tanks, missiles and bombs, and however we try to escape the violence, the news and entertainment industries brings us nose to nose with real, and dramatized, violence every day, marinating us in a skillet of conflict and violence, where conflict and violence have become normal. We have seen, also, how a focus on gun legislation sends gun sales rocketing skyward. Many gun owners are motivated to reinforce, or protect their supply of weapons and ammunition whenever they feel threatened. Suggestive of an addictive process, most addicts will go to any length to protect their supply; through you, over you, or around you. At any rate, by the time any useful legislation is put into effect, which isn’t likely, America will be armed to the teeth, rendering any such law a mockery.

He goes on to speak about how focusing on guns alone really doesn’t deal with the pervasive violence we face individually and collectively, and how the root issue is “about eliminating the need for guns in the hearts of those who would possess them.”

The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It’s not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. If we want to embody a non-violent way of being and acting in the world, we have to come to terms with life and death as unified. Inseparable. That living and dying are occurring in every moment, no matter what we choose to do or not do. On the whole, American’s don’t handle the death side well. When faced with any inkling of it, we’re prone to turn away, minimize, or deny it. The increasing, mostly male obsession with “self defense” and resorting to violent measures to carry out such defense, feels intimately tied to this issue. Men look around and see other men killing each other and they don’t want to be next. Never mind that 2/3rds of gun deaths in the U.S. annually are self inflicted, the fear of being mowed down by some other is widespread.  It’s not the slow fading away from chronic illness or quick passing during an accident that haunts many of us. It’s the messy end by bullet.

Gun violence is just a symptom, though, of much deeper issues. Like patriarchy, for example, which seems to have at its core a certain hatred of life. You can see this not only in the oppression of those who bring new human lives into the world, women, but also through its active promoting of planetary destruction as a “necessary evil” to live “the good life.” We men, as such, have an extra duty to get reflective about why we’re so collectively prone to violence.

How much of our collective obsession with guns is a feeling that we are powerless in our lives? How much of it is a mistaken belief that in owning and using firearms, we might gain control of our lives? Why is it that it much easier to find men who are publicly, even politically passionate about guns rights than it is to find men who are as passionate about health care rights, just to give one example? And how much of this is driven by unexamined fears, including the fear to be a man who shows fear and vulnerability?

In fact, we can replace the word “gun” with “violence” in all of those questions. And really dig into why when faced with conflict and difficulties, we men are so easily driven to some violent measure, even if it’s only a verbal assault.

In the Facebook comments to yesterday’s introduction post about Turning Wheel’s month on non-violence, Mushim Patricia Ikeda wrote something really helpful in working with one of Buddha’s most basic of teachings.

I personally have found it tremendously instructive that translator and Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal, in his excellent translation of The Dhammapada, says that the Pali word translated here as “love” actually means “non-hatred.” Fronsdal says in the notes that he does not think that the English word “love” is an accurate translation of the original text. Therefore, hatred only ceases by non-hatred, is a more accurate translation of this teaching.

When I think about not only gun violence, but violence in general, it so often boils down to self hatred and other hatred. Sometimes it’s mostly one or the other. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Failing to recognize our interdependence, and believing way too strongly in our individual “selves,” it’s easy to fall prey to hatred. The power hatred offers not only fills (for a time) the gap of lack we all experience, but it also provides a false sense of protection. One which manifests towards particular people or groups, but really is, at its core, a felt protection against death itself.

All of this and more is at play behind issues like pervasive gun ownership, state sanctioned warfare, terrorism, and the sport killing of animals. Which is why so many attempts to remedy and heal, either through legislation or some sort of programming, tend to fall painfully short. We battle each other out over the symptoms, forgetting that below those differences tends to be common fears.

In activist circles, I’ve noticed how often discussions on non-violence either aim too soft (riddled with incomplete notions of love and compassion), or get derailed by calls for self defense, as if the two are always mutually exclusive. I tend to think that even with the best of non-violent movements, you can’t eliminate every last ounce of violence. Individual cases of self defense using some level of violence might be necessary, for example. Which is different than “force” or “resistance.” Note that this well known list of 198 different methods  of non-violent action from the 1970s doesn’t include all the “digital” forms that have developed over the past decade or so.

In the end, I’m convinced there’s no way to deal with violence, and develop cultures of non-violence, without facing life and death themselves. Without truly embracing the interdependent cycle, especially the death part of it. This is true for all of us, but as I wrote above, I think that many more men must dig in and do this work as deeply as possible. Because we are, by far, the most addicted to violence as a means of solving conflict. It’s incumbent upon us to wake up to that, and do the right thing.

Comments (11)

  • mel lozano

    Despite early ‘debates’ in ancient India between Buddhists and Jains, we could definitely benefit from something taught in Jain dharma…..one thing i do remember from Jain teaching was how ‘seriously’ they take the concept of Ahimsa….towards both ‘jiva’ (animate beings) and ‘ajiva’ (inanimate substances and objects). The idea is not so much that violence or harm is being ‘done’ towards another, living, breathing sentient being, but rather that you or i (we) are committing it in the first place and what that does to us as human beings, what it does to you and i as individuals, to our minds and hearts….So even if it is being done towards an “inanimate object” -subjected to our violent nature, it is still being expressed and manifested by our act of violence and hostility. This is why it is important to “check ourselves” and understand the nature of our own mind and what motivates us to do what we do…..Often in our reflection of how we view ‘death’ and how we define it- whether it is a ‘cessation’ of life, or simply a stage or ‘gate’ through which all sentient beings must pass, we can see our connection to all things- and our impermanence, and in doing so, hopefully cherish all life- ours as well as what surrounds us….that’s how i understand it.

  • Murray Reiss

    Whenever I read something like “In the end, I’m convinced there’s no way to deal with violence, and develop cultures of non-violence, without facing life and death themselves. Without truly embracing the interdependent cycle, especially the death part of it” I think, well then I guess there’s no way to deal with violence, I think, uh-oh there goes the absolute raising its problematic head again. It takes me back to Gene Sharp quoting civil rights leader James Farmer: “In the arena of political and social events, what men feel and believe matters much less than what, under various kinds of external pressures, they can be made to do.” So if we are in the arena of political and social events let’s look at what pressures can be usefully brought to bear.

    I mean, we’ve had 2500 years of Buddhism, almost as long a run of Christianity, no end of saintly exhortations, practice manuals and scriptures and there’s probably as much greed hatred and delusion at large per capita as there’s ever been. What’s changed things for the better is the kinds of external pressures that have been brought to bear in the form of enforceable regulation and law. By all means, let’s keep working towards that ever elusive, always receding world in which “all embrace the interdependent cycle, especially the death part of it.” It’s good, maybe necessary, to have a vision. But in the meantime, which going by the record is going to be a very long time indeed, we need to reduce and repair the damage that ill continue to be done. We need to put most of our effort into aiming somewhere a little lower on the absolute-relative scale.

  • nathan

    “We need to put most of our effort into aiming somewhere a little lower on the absolute-relative scale.”

    I think part of our collective problem is not being able to handle holding what seem to be contradictions together at the same time. It seems to me far too many of us aim too low. Individually, as practitioners, we seem prone to aiming for things like getting along better with others and doing a little good in the world. Awakening? Liberation? Naw, that’s for a few monks and nuns.

    Collectively, it manifests as tinkering and reforming and things like voting for Democrats (or Republicans for those who lean that way). Revolution? Social transformation? Eradicating racism, sexism, and the like? Naw, that’s utopian nonsense.

    I’d rather have giant visions, and aim for what appears to be impossible, while at the same time, recognizing that it might not happen. And that whatever I do or whatever we collectively do might only shift things a fraction.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that most folks throughout the past 2500+ years haven’t really aspired to be like Buddha or Christ. They’ve aspired to some highly compromised version. Set about by churches, temples, and cultural demands.

    Seems to me that somehow we need more of the great aspiration, coupled with the letting go wisdom that allows folks to do skillful work on the ground, aimed in the direction of that aspiration. Perhaps I would now reword the sentence you quoted to focus on that aiming quality, as opposed to some sort of “required” awakening around death.

  • Bill Davis

    I think you are losing focus and clarity. The article is like a baby’s cry to make the world perfect. It also exagerates the differences between men and women and is loose or negative speech. Women are doing self defense in mass numbers and that is not bad. The Buddhist Temple in China at Shaolin created the martial arts. You are, at least by appearances, denigrating that great tradition.

  • nathan

    I get the feeling your comment, Bill, is very similar to all the white folks that got upset at my race article. I haven’t a clue where you are going with the martial arts point. I deliberately left a space for self defense in the points above. There is some visioning in this piece that leans towards “perfection.” Buddhist teachings are filled with immpossible visions.

  • Murray Reiss

    The question I would ask, in all seriousness, is what is the place/function of “impossible visions” in the psychic ecology of activism? Do what extent do they inspire? To what extent to they contribute to despair? To what extent do they excuse subtle (or not so subtle) forms of abuse? What sort of standard do they set for us and how do we respond? I welcome others’ questions.

  • Jay Garces

    Fake-ass Buddhist troll alert: solution to violence against women = kung fu.

    “Hahahaha, bring it on, suckers, my Plum Flower Fist Style will easily defeat your inferior Double Monkey Gang Rape Style!”

  • nathan

    Those are fair questions Murray. It seems to me that every major social movement begins and/or is inspired by visions that seem impossible. Or at least, quite dreamlike at first. I think the challenges that tend to come are figuring out ways to aim for and achieve smaller steps in the direction of the greater vision. And doing so before too much time goes by, because no concrete “progress” leads to despair. There’s always a back and forth going on from what I have experienced personally, and also have read about social movements and their dynamics. Coming up with action steps and returning to the greater vision. Sometimes, changing conditions prompt reassments of the greater vision, but momentum only seems to keep going when the vision is sufficiently large and inspiring (and not present fully yet on thr ground).

    There are a lot of one off campaigns that people mistake as social movements. I think the gay marriage pushes in states like my own are an example of that. As soon as we got legalized marriage, the vast majority of folks involved were done with that work. Which perhaps is fine. A lot was accomplished. However, if marriage had been framed as one step in a much greater movement for justice for all queer folks in all areas of life, maybe the activist momentum would still be building in that direction. As it is, the groups that have had this larger vision seemed to have gained a few new members and some more resources to keep going, but not in a mass movement way (at least here in MN).

    Now, in that example, it might be true that marriage was THE thing that garnered such broad support. And that the broader vision may be hard to artuclate at this point in ways that appeal beyond the committed base. Which is fairly small.

    But my overall point is that without seemingly impossible visions (which eventually turn into the possible), then what activists end up participating and leading a lot of one off reformist stuff. Which has its place, but really doesn’t transform the roots of oppression.

    It might be that some of what I proposed above is impossible vision that can’t really move into the possible. At least not for a long, long time. I don’t know. I also think when we look at Buddhist teachings, time spans are often really, really long. Beyond that, I think of some indigenous prophecies that are centuries old and seemingly impossible for generations and generations. Somehow, they keep inspiring, even when evidence of fruit is minimal.

    Despair and resignation are pretty key issues to deal with in all of this though. Joanna Macy has done some great work on despair and also grief. I also note that one of her visions – of a nuclear “free” world or at least one beyond nuclear power plants and use of such energy – is seemingly impossible under current conditions. I’ll reflect some more on all this. It seems like a really important intersection to dig more into.

  • Jeff

    Excellent questions indeed, Murray, clearly asked from the school of hard knocks. Although discussing these complex issues in abbreviated form necessarily leads to oversimplification, I would respectfully differ with Nathan: my perception of major social movements is that they rarely arise out of fully conceptualized “impossible visions” but more often begin with concrete, limited demands shared by masses of people. The most committed participants, organizers, or intellectual spokespeople may develop a common Vision based on a historical analysis of what it will take to truly attain and preserve the human rights in question. The more the Vision is embraced by regular folks, the stronger the movement’s potential. But that’s just my take on it, and Nathan correctly notes “there’s always a back and forth going on.”

    One reason I become discouraged with activism at times is that I expect too much of my Vision: maybe things aren’t happening fast enough for me, or maybe not everyone else sees what I think I do, or maybe I need to change my glasses. Seems like it’s easier for me to hold on to a grand political-spiritual Theory Of Everything than to have to look under the hood every time reality contradicts it. But continually test driving and fine-tuning is what it may take to get it running right.

    For example, I am still going to slog along organizing for universal health care within the capitalist system even though my Vision tells me that US public health will never be sound until poverty, ignorance, and exploitation are ended under some form of metta-anarcho-communism. Why bother then? Aside from people simply needing basic reform to survive, the process of achieving this limited goal will accomplish several things. It will teach us how to think and act collectively, which we will have to do in order to go farther toward a compassionate society. It will fundamentally challenge a powerful bastion of ruling class accumulation and social violence and thereby weaken the entire edifice. And, among other things, it’s another opportunity to field-test our Vision and the strategies we use to get there.

    I may not be around to see how it comes out in the end, but I can at least contribute a few footnotes. Great conversation here!

  • nathan

    “I would respectfully differ with Nathan: my perception of major social movements is that they rarely arise out of fully conceptualized “impossible visions” but more often begin with concrete, limited demands shared by masses of people.”

    The “more often” is accurate from my view as well. It might also be said that in some respect, even the concrete, limited demands often carry an element of impossibility to them, at least until enough folks join the effort.

    I also tend to think that the bigger visions are there amongst a smaller group of folks all along. They may not become a central feature until much later, in large part because certain concrete changes in conditions are needed before the vision can be fully shaped and empowered. Richardo Levins Morales, an artist/activist and social movement historian here in the Twin Cities, talks about how social movements usually have an X factor arise. Something (or a set of somethings) that happen which probably weren’t expected. And become a catalyst for the movement to really blossom.

    I also think that another reason why visions aren’t necessarily at the forefront is that there tend to be multiple “big views” amongst the folks involved. And it takes time to determine if these multiple visions can live and function together, or at least side by side in some fashion. Or if they’re so competing that the larger group splits or fragments.

    This might be the place where Murray was pointing to in terms of subtle and not so subtle abuse. How the big visions of minority groups in a movement can easily get marginalized or crushed by those of the majority. And/or how folks that are the most privileged often get to shape the vision.

    In the example above, it was very hard for queer folks that had a different conception of commitment and relationship, for example, to get a word in during the marriage campaign. There was no plurality of “quality relationship and commitment worthy of support.” It was solely about marriage. In fact, the rhetoric was quite conservative at times, which clearly was a tactical move, but one that alienated some folks that might have otherwise supported the efforts. I, personally, felt mixed during the entire thing.

    There’s always this dance between timing and elevating dreams that seem impossible despite perceived impossibility. One could easily argue that Minnesota, for example, isn’t ready to embrace a multiplicity of queer relationships and identities. That’s probably true. But at some point, a risk has to be taken for justice to flower. For those in groups that are always told to “wait,” it gets damned old. At least some of that waiting is nothing more than another form of oppression, done at the hands of supposed allies.

    “Aside from people simply needing basic reform to survive, the process of achieving this limited goal will accomplish several things. It will teach us how to think and act collectively, which we will have to do in order to go farther toward a compassionate society. It will fundamentally challenge a powerful bastion of ruling class accumulation and social violence and thereby weaken the entire edifice. And, among other things, it’s another opportunity to field-test our Vision and the strategies we use to get there.”

    And this is all really great in terms of answering upcoming despair and grasping. I think it’s helpful to try and let go of the fixation on a linear timeline/unfolding as well. That some things are unfolding as we speak, even if we can’t see them (yet).

    I’m always amazed by the little sunflower seeds I put into the ground in late April every year. They sit under the earth a week or two, and then these tiny sprouts shoot up and linger awhile. Then, almost overnight, they blow out and rip towards the sky. Before you know it, you are standing beneath an 8-10 foot stalk.

  • Jeff

    True that!

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